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In Matthew 12:34 when Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees it is written, (NIV)

You brood of vipers,how can you who are evil say anything good?

For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.

What does Jesus mean by referring to them as a "brood of vipers"?

Could he be referring to them as the "seed of the serpent," that is,"Satan's off-spring" namely the children of the Devil.

In John 8:43-44 (when people do not understand the language of Jesus) we read these words of Jesus,

43 Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what i say.

44 You belong to your father the devil,and you want to carry out your father's desire.

Reading these scriptures from Matthew and John, it would appear that the father of the Pharisees is the "serpent."

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I think he just meant to be insulting, like when he called Herod a fox, or when he called them blind leaders of the blind. Its tempting to turn everything into some mystical statement, but I don't think it works that way. – david brainerd Jun 14 '14 at 2:02
    
This blog post should give you insight towards your answer. jeffcreightonblog.wordpress.com/2014/06/04/… – Decrypted Jun 14 '14 at 3:31
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@david agreed. I had a prof who liked to emphasize that it could've been almost any parent other than Abraham and been a mortal insult, akin to Jesus calling them "snake bastards". – fumanchu Jun 14 '14 at 5:34
    
@davidbrainerd it was not my intention to turn my question into a "mystical statement."I am calling on experts in Greek for their thoughts and comments.Click here to help you understand.hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/5886/… – Bagpipes Jun 14 '14 at 9:31
    
@Bagpipes, I think that proves my point. The accepted answer there about fox turns it into a mystical statement too, claiming on the basis of Neh 4:3 that fox can mean "an insignificant person." That's frankly ridiculous. "If so much as a fox goes up on the wall it will fall down" means simply the wall is so weak a small furry creature can destroy it. – david brainerd Jun 15 '14 at 3:24
up vote 6 down vote accepted

After Jesus becomes harsh and gets the scribes' and Pharisees' attention,

Matthew 12:34 (NASB)

“You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.”

two verses later he reminds and warns them of judgment day.

Matthew 12:36-37 (NASB)

“But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. 37 For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

The scribes and Pharisees might think Jesus is insulting them, but he’s actually giving them a metaphor, specifically the viper, to almost scare them. He’s warning them. He’s very upset, yet this is the first of two times in Matthew he warns them of what they’ll face later, their day of judgment.

Jesus uses harsh words to describe how wicked the scribes and Pharisees are. While he’s calling them snakes, he's specifically using vipers as the best metaphor everyone listening will understand. Everyone knows the viper is the most dangerous and worst in terms of looks, with double-forked tongues and venomous fangs, but also in what they do. When they aggressively attack and bite to give venom, they don’t let go. Their poisonous bites often lead to painful deaths. Furthermore, they multiply quickly.

http://www.jerusalemzoo.org.il/index.php?lang=en&act=ecommerce&cat=1950&id=13914&str=palestine

While Jesus mentioned the viper to help discipline and warn the scribes and Pharisees, he had already mentioned the scribes and Pharisees to help teach and warn his crowds. He told them to do just the opposite of the "religious leaders".

“For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)

“So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men.” (Matthew 6:2)

John the Baptist also knew how wicked the “religious leaders” were. In some of his first words in Matthew, John called them vipers, but that was to get their attention and warn them of Jesus.

Matthew 3:7 (NASB)

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?"

Four verses later John warned them, but of Jesus (vs. judgment day).

Matthew 3:11 (NASB)

“As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Later in Matthew after the crowds hear Jesus say “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees” (or “blind” ones guides, fools) seven times, he again calls them vipers and immediately mentions their final sentencing.

Matthew 23:33 (NASB)

”You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell?

In summary, John the Baptist called the scribes and Pharisees a "brood of vipers" as he warned them of Jesus. What Jesus meant to do when he called the scribes and Pharisees a “brood of vipers” was get their attention and warn about judgment day. At the same time he was using that metaphor to tell his people how dangerous and evil the scribes and Pharisees were (i.e. like vipers); he was warning them also. They'd better not act like either one of them.

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Throughout the Old and New Testaments, there was a strong connection between serpents, evil and the underworld and this connection extended into most other mesopotamian cultures as well. Because of this association, serpents developed a highly negative connotation and any association with them was thus considered offensive. This however is a pretty simplistic observation. To begin to understand just how offensive this really is, one must first understand a concept called "Ascribed Honor" and its connection to geneologies.

In a lecture before the Biblical Archaeology Society, Anthropologist Dr. Richard Rohrbaugh explains the importance of Ascribed Honor and its relationship to genealogies. He explains that this honor ranking runs the social system of the middle-east and that one's heritage is the most important social consideration and reputation it tantamount to one's position in the community. I have transcribed some relevant excepts of this lecture below:

Now, The Baltic Culture Continent that you and I live in, anthropologist call a “Guilt Culture”. ...the Mediterranean Culture Continent both today and in antiquity is what anthropologists call an “Honor-Shame Culture”.

...

Honor is relatively simple actually to understand. Honor is your standing in the pecking order of the village, together with the public recognition of that. There is no such thing as claiming honor that the village does not recognize. To claim honor that the village does not recognize is to be uppity; brash; a braggart; a fool. Honor is public reputation in the village and everybody in the village knows exactly where you stand in the pecking order. The reason for that is there are two primary ways in which you can get your honor rating or ranking in a village. ...

The overwhelming way in which you get your honor rating is from your birth. It's what anthropologist call “ascribed honor.” It's the honor that you get the day you pop out of the womb. It's the honor that you and every member of your extended family has - male and female - everybody in your family has, has always had, and always will have. That kind of Ascribed Honor means that if you are born in a very high family, you have a high honor ranking. If you are born a low-life, you have a low honor ranking and you're probably going to have a till the day you die. So the overwhelming way in which you get your honor is from the family of your birth. Do you now understand why genealogies are so important in the Bible? Genealogies indicate in writing what a village knows orally. Namely, the family you were born in and hence the honor ranking you have.

...

Genealogies are, if you will, a kind of a map for the whole community - describing exactly where in the scheme of things you fit. Among non-literate people (which in antiquity was about ninety-six percent of the population); among non-literate people genealogies would be very short. Only upper class wealthy people have written genealogies. And you understand that the longer the genealogy, the better? Because it means you're from old money not new money. You understand?

...What I find interesting is the genealogy in Luke - It goes all the way back to “son of seth, son of Adam, son of God”. That is, it traces it to the beginning. That's the longest genealogy possible. Do you understand that in honor claim is being made? In fact we know from Roman texts that people in the Roman world who did become newly rich and wanted to move up the social ladder hired genealogists to create fictive genealogies for themselves and there were a few stars in the pantheon of Roman ancestors they all wanted to be associated with. For a fee, you could get that association. Now you have the map that tells everybody where you fit in the pecking order of things and that had an enormous impact on your life.

I’m going to show you some slides in a minute of some ancient text that describe the fact that your honor ranking determine who ate with whom, who could marry whom, who spoke to whom, who listened to whom. It determined who would speak first in a conversation. It determined who would marry whom and who would do business with whom. In fact it determined most of the social patterns of your life. It's therefore critically important that everybody in the village know exactly where you stand - because it provides the road map for how you and I are going to interact with each other.

...

Jesus comes from a no-account little village. He's a village – a τέκτων (tektón) he is called in the Greek. We translate it carpenter – it could be a worker in metal, stone, or wood. I don't have time today but to show you just how low on the social scale that really is - It's very near the bottom. People like that don't get up and talk in public. So when Jesus does, It confuses everybody. In the Middle-East they expect somebody born of a great family to be great. You're born of a low family you're going to be no-account. What does not compute in their social compass is somebody born to a low-life family who turns out to be great. How do you explain that?

Well of course what Matthew and Luke do to explain it is they give us these very elaborate birth stories in which they try to tell us that God was somehow unusually involved in this birth. Otherwise there could be no expectation that anybody would listen to Jesus. What do his opponents do in the twentieth chapter of Luke? They say, “Who gives you the authority to speak like this?” Note that they didn't say, “Did you have this authority from your birth?” They know that's not true. “Who gave you this authority?” Their assumption is somebody had to have acquired the honor from somebody who recognized it because all honor has to be publicly recognized.

...

We're not often aware of it when we read the English Bible but Jesus is extremely skilled at this kind of insult. Some of you may remember that in the twenty-third chapter of Matthew, Jesus calls his opponents - It's translated in the English – “A brood of vipers.” That is not exactly what the Greek says. The Greek says, “You snake-bastards” Now think about that in honor-shame culture. If you get your honor ranking from your family, to call some of the illegitimate son of a snake - that is the Mediterranean equivalent of a dirty mouth.

In other words, the closest English equivalent would have been for Jesus to call the pharisees "sons of bitches", except this modern insult probably isn't as offensive as the one Jesus used.

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